Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Marathons Honor a Dead Greek Guy

My girlfriend's mom is going to run in the Chicago marathon this October. I shudder at what it takes to complete one.  A 150 pound person would need 2950 Calories to run a marathon. That's five Big Macs worth of chemical energy, and if you weigh more than 150 pounds, the amount of required energy  increases. Although I have the mental fortitude to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies without stopping, I don't have it in me to run 26 miles. So, I really do wish her the best of luck, and I can't wait for all her training to pay off.

Marathons, like the Olympic games, have an interesting history tied into Greek mythology. It's not as cool as Hercules setting up a tournament to honor the King of Olympus, but it has a certain Hollywood charm.

The Myth of Pheidippides

Don't worry - I can't pronounce that name either.

According to legend, Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens, sought to take back his kingdom in 492 B.C.E. For sanity's sake, I'll try to avoid the dry details. The important point is when he landed on the shore of Marathon, the Athenians wiped the floor with him and his army.

They then sent a runner to Athens to spread the news. The runner, a soldier named Pheidippides, ran 24 miles on foot to the city of Athens, shouted, "Victory!" and then fell and died from exhaustion. In his honor, the man who carried the news of Athens' glory to his dying breath, the Athenians hosted an annual, commemorative 24 mile footrace.

See the Hollywood in that?

The Facts of Pheidippides

As neat a story as that is, it's in no way true. Although recorded in Plutarch's The Glory of Athens, that story was written 550 yeas after the time Pheidippides was supposedly alive. On the other hand, Herodotus' Histories was written just 50 years after the time of Pheidippides, and Herodotus wrote something a little different.

Hero (short for Herodotus because I'm getting sick of typing these long Greek names, over and over again,) wrote about a long-distance runner sent from the Athenian army to Sparta to ask for reinforcement. On his way to Sparta, the runner, Phei (again, his name is too long,) encountered Pan, a Greek god. Pan asked why the Spartans weren't worshipping him anymore. Phei finished his run to Sparta, didn't die and told the Spartans to support the Athenians and to worship Pan. They agreed, and with the god Pan on their side, they defeated the tyrant Hippias at Marathon, and hosted the Marathon run in honor of the god, not Phei.

Yep, Pan is a satyr. What is it with Greek athletics and goat-men?
While this story seems a bit more complicated, it has one thing going for it: in the original myth, Phei was sent after the Athenian victory at Marathon. If the battle had been won, why not send a horseman to Sparta? Why send a runner such a long distance? The only reason you'd hold a cavalryman back is if you still had a battle to fight, which makes the second story not only more time-congruent, but also plausible.

Modern Day

But wait, aren't modern marathons 26 miles long... What's this business about 24 miles? The distance from Marathon to Athens is 24 miles. The original marathon ran in honor of Pan was that same distance. The marathon was later adapted to the first modern Olympic games in 1896, hosted in Greece, remaining the 24 mile distance.

The extra two miles were added in 1908 when the Olympics were hosted in London. The distance was added so the race would go from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium.

Since 1908, 26 miles have been the standard distance for marathons.

God save the queen... Right?
 I'm sure my girlfriend's mom will be happy about those extra two miles...

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